Stepping out of the subway station, theatergoers arrive in South Boston and trek past wide, empty parking lots and vast rows of warehouses. The view is marred by a heavy snowfall and gusting winds. A short walk across this barren, powder-covered terrain brings us to Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s mid-winter Midsummer Night's Dream—a delightful collaboration of dramatic and visual work between the Boston Arts Academy and Artists for Humanity. The production opens in the two story dramatic space in Midway Studios, tucked into a block of warehouses. Amidst the urban setting, the set and costume design artfully frames this industrial production. Director Benjamin Evett’s traditional dialogue and sparse cutting melds well with the modern setting to create a rich and accessible play.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the excitement, humor and visual splendor increase twentyfold when the lovers leave Athens to stomp around the fairy realm. This production is no exception to rule; in fact, Evett emphasizes the appeal of this gritty subculture by contrasting it with a dull and colorless Athens. Things get off to a slow start, and a number of the actors in the first scene seem to struggle with Shakespeare’s language. Athenian love scenes fall flat while passionate declarations of love and adoration seem laughable and sickly sweet. Jennie Israel as Helena provides some relief from the syrupy dialogue as she bitterly stomps around, rolling her eyes at lovebirds Hermia (Mara Sidmore) and Lysander (Shelley Bolman). Flourishing in woe, Dayenne Byron Walters as Egeus simmers with a father’s rage while Hermia’s pink cheeks color her desperation and add some passion to the sappy happiness of love.
The set, designed by graffiti artist Rob Gibbs (PROBLACK), with assistance from the Artists for Humanity Graffiti Team, are exciting and innovative. This play, traditionally planted in a wild forest, is instead surrounded by a barren urban landscape of trash, graffiti and wrecked cars. As night falls, Puck (Maurice Emmanuel Parent) rushes around to unearthly music, tearing white sheets off set pieces to reveal the grimy underbelly beyond the sterile city. An iron industrial door sporting a spray painted moon and a two-story tall painting of a tree dominate the set design. The tree, consisting of an industrial trunk jointed with branches that hold wispy foliage in a claw, mirrors the mood of the nighttime scenes in the production. With industrial standing in for nature, this urban landscape is tenuously threatening and bizarrely beautiful.
Emerging from this grimy backdrop are Titania’s fairies—four students from Boston Arts Academy whose ripped clothes, skullcaps and attitudes challenge Oberon’s Puck. Again incorporating the art of dichotomy, the quiet fairies wear loud costumes that proclaim their rebellious, anarchist natures. Goth accessories are magical in their own right; when they are slipped on the lovers they prove transformative with hilarious results.
This magical world of the forest is a colorful battle between two street gangs, in which the youthful fairies exude power over the well-dressed adult lovers who stumble across their paths. Titania’s young, manipulative, and mostly mute apprentices circle menacingly whenever onstage, and the fairies’ shrill lullaby is just plain creepy. Maurice Emmanuel Parent plays an hilarious and daunting Puck, decked in motorcycle studs and a mohawk. Parent’s eyes reveal his wild and unpredictable nature that in glee, distress or determination is always something a little beyond human.
Michael Kaye is a gothic Oberon, sporting a long black coat, spiky hair and the conniving authority that precedes the lovers’ mishaps. Titania (Marianna Bassham) matches her estranged lover, and beneath her pink hair, Bassham’s face is constantly tattooed with running tears of mascara. Bassham is entrancing, and she is one of the true stars of the show. She delivers her passionate speech about the changeling child in a miserable monotone voice that leaves the audience hanging on every word. When she pairs up with Bottom (Robert Walsh), the production reaches its peak as these two amazing actors play off one another. Walsh is a standout, bringing the audience to their knees as he parades around, playing a perfectly terrible actor with an ego that fills the stage.
The mechanicals are a ragtag group of “actors” parodying acting troupes with a fantastic tongue-in-cheek attitude. Peter Quince, played by founding company member John Kuntz, is especially ridiculous as a sycophantic troupe leader, lavishing attention on Bottom while simultaneously sipping on Starbucks coffee. The mechanicals are modern day goons, employing slapstick into their “production” at the close of the play, incorporating yoga stances and the longest death throes this reviewer has ever laughed through. Nelson Martinez Jr., another BAA student, is a hilariously terrified Snug—an eager yet nervous mechanical who looks like he nearly succumbs to his fears when performing before the Duke and Duchess on their wedding day at night.
The lovers’ plunders throughout the night reach a fever pitch that nearly escalates to a barroom brawl, each influenced by the fairies around them. Demetrius’ (Christopher James Webb) dark-eyed glare and harsh guttural denouncements in Athens contrast sharply with the dancing love struck man-about-the-forest, clad in a leopard print jacket. Lysander’s corny proclamations of love in Athens transform into shouting, whiny solicitations. Hermia and Helena’s catfight is a sidesplitting primal version of the rivalry they only passive-aggressively address in Athens.
The production ends with all the Athenians coming together with the magical residents of the wood in a well-coordinated dance and song conclusion that melds these two worlds into one. Wild, gleeful and risqué, once this cast finds its stride, this production embraces the best parts of their manufactured wilderness.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs December 30 – January 24, 2010 at Midway Studios, 15 Channel Center Street, Fort Point Channel, Boston, MA 02210. Information can be found at http://www.actorsshakespeareproject.org/.